John Muir On The ‘Negroes’ Of The American South

John Muir often wrote soaring prose about the beauties and majesties of nature, about how the outdoors were our ‘natural cathedrals’; he urged his fellow human beings to leave behind their sordid, grubby, weekday cares and let themselves be elevated by the sublime qualities of hill and vale and river and babbling brook. Here, on earth, he sought the transcendent, and his writings reflected that elevated aspiration and his delighted and delightful responses to the grand offerings of awe-inspiring locales like the American West. Elsewhere, in his opinions of human beings, he often showed himself to be anchored firmly in his times and place; a man ultimately, of a particular locale, at a particular point in history.

During his famed 1867 walk from Kentucky to the Gulf Coast, Muir passed through an American South still recovering from the Civil War. Its population included both ‘whites’ and ‘negroes.’ Muir’s encounters with the latter are described in a language typical for its time–‘negroes’ are creatures with distinctive characteristics, a sub-species of a very particular kind.

In Kentucky,  Muir met “a great many negroes going to meeting, dressed in their Sunday best. Fat, happy looking, and contented.” There too, when trying to cross a “deep and rapid” river, he had been aided by a “negro woman” who asked him to wait while she arranged for a horse. This was arranged; “the little sable negro boy that rode him looked like a bug on his back.” Muir was soon “mounted behind little Nig. He was a queer specimen, puffy and jet as an India rubber doll and his hair was matted in sections like the wool of a merino sheep….little Afric looked as if he might float like a bladder.” Muir did think that “many of these Kentucky Negroes are shrewd and intelligent, and when warmed upon a subject that interests them, are eloquent in no mean degree.” In Georgia, Muir found that the “negroes here have been well trained and are extremely polite. When they come in sight of a white man on the road, off go their hats, even at a distance of forty or fifty yards, and they walk bare-headed until he is out of sight.” Still, Muir was worried about “idle negroes..prowling about everywhere” and took considerable concern to avoid them–and their “wild eyes”– in his search for a resting place at night. He was generally less than impressed by their work ethic for “the negroes are easy-going and merry, making a great deal of noise and doing little work. One energetic white man, working with a will, would easily pick as much cotton as half a dozen Sambos and Sallies.”

His impression of the negro’s essential wilderness was confirmed by an encounter with a ‘negro family’ in Florida, who he encountered in a forest:

When within three or four miles of the town I noticed a light off in the pine woods. As I was very thirsty, I thought I would venture toward it with the hope of obtaining water. In creeping cautiously and noiselessly through the grass to discover whether or not it was a camp of robber negroes, I came suddenly in full view of the best-lighted and most primitive of all the domestic establishments I have yet seen in town or grove. There was, first of all, a big, glowing log fire, illuminating the overleaning bushes and trees, bringing out leaf and spray with more than noonday distinctness, and making still darker the surrounding wood. In the center of this globe of light sat two negroes. I could see their ivory gleaming from the great lips, and their smooth cheeks flashing off light as if made of glass. Seen anywhere but in the South, the glossy pair would have been taken for twin devils, but here it was only a negro and his wife at their supper.

I ventured forward to the radiant presence of the black pair, and, after being stared at with that desperate fixedness which is said to subdue the lion, I was handed water in a gourd from somewhere out of the darkness. I was standing for a moment beside the big fire, looking at the unsurpassable simplicity of the establishment, and asking questions about the road to Gainesville, when my attention was called to a black lump of something lying in the ashes of the fire. It seemed to be made of rubber; but ere I had time for much speculation, the woman bent wooingly over the black object and said with motherly kindness, “Come, honey, eat yo’ hominy.”

At the sound of “hominy” the rubber gave strong manifestations of vitality and proved to be a burly little negro boy, rising from the earth naked as to the earth he came. Had he emerged from the black muck of a marsh, we might easily have believed that the Lord had manufactured him like Adam direct from the earth.

Surely, thought I, as I started for Gainesville, surely I am now coming to the tropics, where the inhabitants wear nothing but their own skins. This fashion is sufficiently simple, “no troublesome disguises,” as Milton calls clothing, — but it certainly is not quite in harmony with Nature. Birds make nests and nearly all beasts make some kind of bed for their young; but these negroes allow their younglings to lie nestless and naked in the dirt.

These lines of Muir’s are only odd because Muir wrote so eloquently and voluminously about how he descended into a kind of feral existence himself when he ventured into the wild, how he slept wherever he could make a bed for himself, and so on. Clearly, in his case, his ‘wilderness’ represented a kind of movement outward, while for the ‘negro’ it was just an essential state of being.

Critical Theory And The Nature Of Law

My graduate seminar on ‘The Nature of Law‘ read and discussed critical race theory this past week. I’ve–along with my students–been thinking about the relationship of critical material like this–along with the critical legal studies readings we did over the last two weeks–to the definitional and foundational debates that so occupied us in the beginning of the semester. Certainly, we seemed to be distant, in our concerns and preoccupations, from the question of what law is ‘–at least in the way that, for instance, the folks engrossed in the natural lawpositivism debate were. In one dimension. For instance, precisely because critique seizes upon normative failings, we were often discussing what the law ought to be as opposed to what it is. But in another, we aren’t.

For note that in providing the sort of critique critical race theory and critical legal studies are advancing,  the kind that informs us it is an agent of social construction and reification, an instrument of ideological control, a diversion away from radical political and social change, toward change more palatable to the established orders, we are also being told a great deal about what the law is not. It is not an impartial dispenser of justice, and neither is it a reliable instrument of social change. The critical race theorist is able to remind us of law’s limitations and circumscriptions: the inability of its remedies to redress some kinds of particularly pernicious wrongs, its helplessness in the face of entrenched, ‘internal’ racism, the kind which deeply implicates every social, political, and economic reality it interacts with, its being frozen into accepted trajectories of reasoning and categorization that prevent it from playing the kind of role most optimistically envisaged for it by a certain species of liberal theorizing. For instance, the critical race theorist’s advancement of an argument for reparation shows how current legal reasoning and analysis is inflexibly locked into presumptive modes of inquiry and understanding about guilt, responsibility, and even the ontology of groups and persons, that lead to a reflexive rejection of such claims. Law constructs many social facts, and there are many others that construct it in turn.

The critical theorist also–most crucially–adds color and depth to the earlier bloodless debates about whether law is understood as a system of rules, the command of a sovereign or the imperfect realization of a social morality. Critical theory informs us that the identity, the placement within social and political orderings and hierarchies, of legal actors–and those subject to them–is a crucial determinant of the content of law; it is a crucial force in determining the trajectories and workings out of a legal system. (Feminist legal theorists, who we will begin reading in two weeks time, will obviously bolster such identification.)

The nature of law remains crucially undertheorized unless its definitions are bolstered by critique. For it is only by means of the latter that the history of law can be seen and examined. And that, of course, is how we bring its coherence and incoherence to light.

Darren Wilson’s Post-Police Career

Darren Wilson has resigned from the Ferguson, MO, police force. His stated intentions are honorable, possibly even noble:

It was my hope to continue in police work, but the safety of other police officers and the community are of paramount importance to me. It is my hope that my resignation will allow the community to heal.

We should not, as some rather unkindly have, respond to this announcement with a chorus of “I got your healing right here.”  Yet, in the wake of his entirely unrepentant, six-figure earning, television appearance last week with ABC NewsGeorge Stephanopoulos, one in which Wilson made clear that he had no regrets for having shot Michael Brown dead, that he would do it all over again, and expressed no remorse at the loss of a young man’s life, and certainly no empathy with his grieving parents,  I am, how you say, somewhat skeptical.

In that non-gullible spirit therefore, I hereby offer some speculation about Darren Wilson’s post-police-career alternative means of employment. That  most of these involve speaking engagements should be entirely unsurprising: all too often, the clearest path to eventual riches in today’s US–now that seminars in real estate and finance have lost some of their former cachet–seems to be offering advice.

Darren Wilson could be:

1. A community speaker on neighborhood relations, offering talks such as “The Importance of Street Stops Done Right.”

2. A spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, speaking on ‘This Might Be My Gun, But It Sure Ain’t For Fun.” Flyers for his talks might note Officer Wilson’s “extensive experience in using and discharging firearms till they are good and empty.” (As a side bonus, Wilson will offer dark warnings on “the dangers of unused ammunition.”)

3.  An adviser to Marvel Comics for a new super-villain series, starting with a yet-to-be-named dastardly entity, who, as a mash-up of “Hulk Hogan” and your garden-variety “demon,” gets “mad” if you “shoot at him.” Wilson will also be contracted to supply some artwork, especially for the villain’s highly emotive expressions.

4. A distinguished guest on Rush Limbaugh‘s radio show, speaking on “Model Majorities: The White Police Officer.”

5. An author, writing his memoir–titled My Life Drawing And Coloring The Thin Blue Line‘–one contracted to a major publisher with a hefty advance.

6. A commencement speaker, offering advice on how to navigate the grand jury process and emerge indictment-free. (Pro-tip: start white.)

7. A security director for the National Convenience Store Owners’ Association, describing and designing appropriate steps to secure small items from the depredations of large young black men. (Pro-tip: Start shooting.)

8. A  security consultant on anti-looting measures. (Pro-tip: See #7 above.)

9. A public relations consultants for the pharmaceutical industry, offering talks such as “What To Do When Accused of the Deaths of Innocents: Managing Public Relations’ Disasters.”

10. A special guest on  Fox News, speaking on, “Why They Hate Us And Our Freedoms (Especially Those Pertaining to Peaceful Assembly.”

The demand for Wilson’s resignation was grounded in one overriding principle: that Wilson not do more damage–especially to the communities he polices. As my only half-facetious list suggests, Wilson could yet do more damage and make a better living than he ever has before.

Tocqueville On Slaves, House Of Cards, And Miami

In his classic Democracy in America, in the section “Situation Of The Black Population In The United States, And Dangers With Which Its Presence Threatens The Whites”, Alexis Tocqueville wrote:

[I]n a certain portion of the territory of the United States…the legal barrier which separated the two races is tending to fall away, but not that which exists in the manners of the country; slavery recedes, but the prejudice to which it has given birth remains stationary. Whosoever has inhabited the United States must have perceived that in those parts of the Union in which the negroes are no longer slaves, they have in no wise drawn nearer to the whites….the prejudice of the race appears to be stronger in the States which have abolished slavery, than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those States where servitude has never been known….In the South, where slavery still exists, the negroes are less carefully kept apart; they sometimes share the labor and the recreations of the whites; the whites consent to intermix with them to a certain extent, and although the legislation treats them more harshly, the habits of the people are more tolerant and compassionate. In the South the master is not afraid to raise his slave to his own standing, because he knows that he can in a moment reduce him to the dust at pleasure.

This passage on segregation and the power structures that create and sustain it inspire the following indirectly related observations:

1.  In House of Cards Francis Underwood is shown loving the finger-licking good ribs at Freddy’s BBQ, a down-home Southern joint owned by Freddy Hayes. The Wikipedia entry for the character describes him as “One of Frank’s only true friends and confidants who he turns to for a fun talk.” One of the reasons, of course, that Freddy, a black man from the South, is such a ‘true friend’ to Francis, is that besides his facility with ribs, he knows his place; he knows the line not to be crossed. In the North the “negroes” Tocqueville observed did not know their place.

2. Where segregation is visible and manifest by a variety of social mechanisms it can soon become self-imposed.  My first trip to Miami in 1990 was made in the company of a Haitian friend. We drove down, visited a Cuban friend of ours, and checked out some of the local attractions, including its white sanded beaches. A short while after we had hit the waves and stretched out for a little sunning–not that we, black and brown–needed any, my friend got up, gathered his belongings and said he wanted a change of scene, a “better spot.” He seemed uncomfortable. I was a little puzzled; our spot seemed perfect. But I accompanied him as he left. We walked on for about ten minutes or so,  and then parked ourselves in a locale that did not seem too different from the one we had left. I remained puzzled. But not for too long. When I looked around, I noticed there were more black people around us. Indeed, a few minutes later, when I walked back to our car to retrieve some food and drink to bring back to our blanket, I could look down on the beach below me and saw distinct swathes of black, brown, and white. The population of Miami had, on this beach, with varying degrees of consciousness about their actions, sorted themselves into distinct bands on its sands. They knew where and around whom they wanted to be; they knew who would want to be around them; they all knew their place.

O. Henry on the South (Mainly Nashville)

I’ve only read a couple of short stories by O. Henry but have long owned an omnibus collection of them (presented to me on my twenty-eighth birthday). I’ve finally taken a gander at it, and stumbled on his classic A Municipal ReportHenry was a Southerner transplanted to the East Coast, so I find the narrator’s voice–a supposed ‘outsider’ speaking of the South–of particular interest. This developing ‘attitude’ towards Nashville (and its people) leads to several memorable, witty descriptions. Here are a few of my favorites.

On Southern weather:

Take a London fog 30 parts; malaria 10 parts; gas leaks 20 parts; dewdrops gathered in a brick yard at sunrise, 25 parts; odor of honeysuckle 15 parts. Mix.

The mixture will give you an approximate conception of a Nashville drizzle. It is not so fragrant as a moth-ball nor as thick as pea-soup; but ’tis enough – ’twill serve.

On Southern hotels, hospitality, and history (race and the Civil War too!):

I went to a hotel in a tumbril. It required strong self-suppression for me to keep from climbing to the top of it and giving an imitation of Sidney Carton. The vehicle was drawn by beasts of a bygone era and driven by something dark and emancipated.

I was sleepy and tired, so when I got to the hotel I hurriedly paid it the fifty cents it demanded (with approximate lagniappe, I assure you). I knew its habits; and I did not want to hear it prate about its old “marster” or anything that happened “befo’ de wah.”

The hotel was one of the kind described as ‘renovated.” That means $20,000 worth of new marble pillars, tiling, electric lights and brass cuspidors in the lobby, and a new L. & N. time table and a lithograph of Lookout Mountain in each one of the great rooms above. The management was without reproach, the attention full of exquisite Southern courtesy, the service as slow as the progress of a snail and as good-humored as Rip Van Winkle.

Tobacco chewing:

All my life I have heard of, admired, and witnessed the fine marksmanship of the South in its peaceful conflicts in the tobacco-chewing regions. But in my hotel a surprise awaited me. There were twelve bright, new, imposing, capacious brass cuspidors in the great lobby, tall enough to be called urns and so wide-mouthed that the crack pitcher of a lady baseball team should have been able to throw a ball into one of them at five paces distant. But, although a terrible battle had raged and was still raging, the enemy had not suffered. Bright, new, imposing, capacious, untouched, they stood. But, shades of Jefferson Brick! the tile floor – the beautiful tile floor! I could not avoid thinking of the battle of Nashville, and trying to draw, as is my foolish habit, some deductions about hereditary marksmanship. [links added]

The Southern gentleman, Major Wentworth Carswell:

I happened to be standing within five feet of a cuspidor when Major Caswell opened fire upon it. I had been observant enough to percieve that the attacking force was using Gatlings instead of squirrel rifles; so I side-stepped so promptly that the major seized the opportunity to apologize to a noncombatant. He had the blabbing lip. In four minutes he had become my friend and had dragged me to the bar.

I desire to interpolate here that I am a Southerner. But I am not one by profession or trade. I eschew the string tie, the slouch hat, the Prince Albert, the number of bales of cotton destroyed by Sherman, and plug chewing. When the orchestra plays Dixie I do not cheer….Major Caswell banged the bar with his fist, and the first gun at Fort Sumter re-echoed. When he fired the last one at Appomattox I began to hope.